Tuesday, July 26, 2016

What I'm Reading

I've recently mentioned several books of art instruction here on the blog, but this time I want to cover some different territory. And I've discovered it all thanks to my still ongoing perusal of David Apatoff's Illustration Art blog - specifically by following up on things said, mostly by one Kev Ferarra, in the comments section.  The discussion there is on a very different level to what I've encountered anywhere else, though certain threads at Conceptart do occasionally come close - usually ones where Mr. Ferarra has taken part. The guy is definitely a modern day Renaissance Man, or more properly a modern day Romanticist of the first stripe. And now, having run across so many of his posts, I've developed an understanding of where his extensive knowledge and theoretical framework come from.

To cut right to the chase, it's from extensive reading into aesthetics as well as writings about art by some of the great thinkers of history, many of whom are themselves artists. Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy dealing with the arts, graced by such thinkers as Kant, Hegel, Hume, Schiller, Nietszche,  Schopenhauer, and many more. I've hit up Project Gutenberg and filled a few folders with the works of many of these esteemed authors, and have started to read a couple of them with a mix of anticipation and dread - dread because of the often impenetrable terminology. In frustration at one point while reading Nietszche's Birth of Tragedy, I highlighted every term in a paragraph that I didn't understand, and there were literally only abut 4 words left unmarked! Most of it isn't that bad, but that exercise did make me decide that I needed to find some kind of Dictionary of Aesthetics and possibly an Introduction to it as well to help noobs like me find their way through these thorny thickets.

I wasn't able to find a Dictionary of Aesthetics specifically, but I did find this nifty online Dictionary of Philosophy, and since aesthetics is a subset of philosophy, that helps. Still many terms left undefined that the writers assume a reader will know, so that's why I went looking for an Introduction and I decided on this one - Philosophy of the Arts - An Introduction to Aesthetics @ Amazon. I feel much better prepared now to wade into this arena, and what I'm finding there so far is about what I would expect - a lot of stuff I don't really care much about, with occasionally a standout idea that lights up my brain like a Christmas tree. It can be really dry academic stuff for long stretches, but when it gets good it gets really really good. Developing new thought structures about art allows you to think about things you weren't able to before, or to bring new perspectives to things you thought you knew thoroughly already.

Here are a couple of online articles that got me started:
Kant, Immanuel: Aesthetics - Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Hegel's Aesthetics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

I find Hegel much more readable than Kant.

But the Romanticism is more fun and more accessible than the aesthetics. It's not an art movement or period, but rather a way of approaching art that cuts through several different periods and movements and spans many countries. Very hard to really define, but essentially it's about the artist bringing his own personal character and emotion to bear on his subject rather than providing a clear objective viewpoint on something. Passion and personality are more important than accuracy.

Studies in the History of the Renaissance by Walter Pater is one of the best books I've read about it. Another is Romanticism by Hugh Honour, which puts it into perspective beautifully. And just for fun I also got Selected Writings by John Ruskin - who stood in opposition to Romanticism for its hippy-dippy subjectivism. One of the best books of the bunch.

Imagination is one of the qualities most prized by the Romantics. They want art to show imaginativeness, not just dull photorealistic accuracy. Hence they were/are strongly opposed to movements like Neoclassicism, Realism and the newer Photorealism. And you know what - this speaks to me - I've been getting pretty tired of doing nothing but studies aimed at accuracy and precision. Of course those are necessary for learning the craft of art, every artist worth their salt needs to go through their academic training period. But I definitely prefer when I can cut loose and do something with some imaginative freedom!

It's very stimulating to encounter this deep level of discussion about art and aesthetics, so rare today in any venue outside of Conceptart and the Illustration Art blog. Of course that could be because I haven't ventured into the deep water anywhere else, but it's not for lack of desire. It's more that I was unaware of this level of dialectic concerning art.Generally what you encounter is advice on how to draw and paint - very utilitarian stuff - or very shallow discussion about what kind of art people like or who their favorite artists are. One thing to note about most of the books I listed above - they were all written long ago. Most in or before the 19th century - in other words before the age of Modernism that started with the dawning of the 20th century. Close on the heels of Modernism came its evil shadow Postmodernism  which has declared the end of figurative painting, the end of beauty, of content and meaning - the end of pretty much everything that art used to be about. There was a steep decline though even before Postmodernism reared its ugly head - Modernism itself began as something amazing and beautiful - Impressionism, Post Impressionism, Expressionism, up until Abstract Expressionism. At that point everything changed and quality ceased to be a goal. Or rather nobody could tell what quality was anymore because - as the saying goes - my 4 year old could paint that!

A big part of the change was the fact that the early modernists had the benefit of a rigorous classical training, not only in art, but in the humanities across the board.They were avidly reading the books and papers and attending lectures by these writers I've listed as well as many others, and spent a lot of time discussing the topics and thinking about them. Their letters to each other were filled with this kind of discourse. But no longer. Postmodernism has ended it all, except for those who can find a way around over or through its massive edifice to discover the now largely lost knowledge, which is never discussed in most so-called art schools except in terms of derision and contempt. I feel at this point like some of the early Renaissance artists must have felt when the discoveries of ancient Rome and Greece started becoming known and provided a massive jump start to the Age of Enlightenment.